Grace Presbyterian Church
October 25, 2020, Pentecost 21A (recorded)
1 Thessalonians 2:1-13
Who Do We Listen To?
Thus may poor fools believe false teachers:
though those that are betray’d do feel the treason sharply,
yet the traitor stands in worse case of woe.
–Shakespeare, Cymbeline, King of Britain, act III scene 4
Who do we listen to?
More specifically: who do we as the church, the church writ large, the Church Universal, listen to?
It seems painfully clear that, given the wild divergence of opinion and action and attitude on the part of the various corners of the church in the US, much less the world, there really isn’t one voice to which the church as a whole truly listens. One would of course like to say that the church hearkens (to use fancy biblical-sounding language) only to the voice of God, but (to put it bluntly) it’s hard to trust in that in all cases and places. It takes only minimal amounts of looking around to run into examples of “the church” that don’t seem to have listened to a word from the Lord in a very, very long time. The venom spewed by such churches or their pastors “in the name of God” sickens.
(Remember, I spent four years living about a half-hour from the infamous Westboro Baptist “Church” in Kansas. The stories you’d see in the newspapers about their, um, actions? Those stories likely undersold the vitriol of that congregation.)
I’m not necessarily talking about the voices of those who are up before the congregation on Sunday mornings, virtually or otherwise these days, offering up a portion of scripture and a hopefully-valiant attempt to say something about it with the Holy Spirit’s help, although those people (like, uh, me) are certainly the “first line” of voices an average congregation might hear. The multiplicity of voices vying for the attention of the church extends well beyond the walls of any one pastor or church staff, and can be found emanating from the halls of political power, fame or celebrity, the performance stage or the pages of books.
Paul’s entreaties here in 1 Thessalonians 2 may seem to be a distant subject in comparison to the noise of politicians and megapastors and media mavens who seek to lead the church in one direction or the other. It’s not, though. Remembering that Paul uses the common Greco-Roman rhetorical practice of offering himself as an example (we first encountered that in Philippians), what we discover here is perhaps a less explicit but no less pointed demonstration of what the Thessalonians were to seek in those who claimed to be called to lead them. Those who lacked such traits or indeed practiced the opposite of such deeds among the people were, in turn, not to be trusted.
So, when Paul recalls that he and his co-workers Silvanus and Timothy “had the courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition,” there’s a clue to the kind of voices we need to listen to; those that do not flinch from speaking the truth of Jesus in a time or place where speaking that truth will be opposed and challenged. We’ve already observed just last week that Jesus his own self faced opposition and even death for the gospel he proclaimed and the life he lived; it won’t be any different for us, and those who aren’t up to that challenge should probably not occupy a lot of our time.
When Paul speaks of appealing to the Thessalonians not from “deceit or impure motives or trickery,” things get more challenging; it’s not always easy to spot a con man (or woman). This kind of selection requires discernment; we have to be paying attention to the track record of those who clamor for our attention. Speaking “not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts” points to a characteristic that is not easily received; we are often enough the mortals who want to be pleased by the words of the preachers or prophets or singers or best-selling authors or politicians. Similarly, we are susceptible to the “flattery” Paul forswears in verse 5; but the one who truly fulfills the call of proclamation will not be seeking to tickle our ears with how we’re such good people, God’s favorites even. The “greed” reference in that same verse is hard to miss, sometimes, given the ever-swelling bank accounts of many of those preachers and politicians and authors and whatnot clamoring for our attention.
Perhaps the most notable part of this description is the care Paul describes for the church folk at Thessalonica, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (notice that Paul isn’t afraid to invoke a quite “feminine” image to describe God’s care for us, and the care that he and his co-workers were thus called to show as well). When the care shown is for the church and its people first, in the way that God cares for the church, you’re hearing a voice that’s probably worth listening to; a voice that will build up and encourage and care for and exhort and occasionally cajole and prod and poke not for the sake of worldly gain or power or wealth or influence, but for the good of God’s people – all of God’s people, to be sure, not just “us.”
Of course there are other passages of scripture to which one can point for examples of what or who to listen to; one might think of those who show the “fruits of the Spirit” described in Galatians 5, or those virtues to think on from back in Philippians 4, as further examples of what we would do well to seek in those we choose to listen to. And of course there are those gospels again, with all the words and deeds of Jesus that we just identified as our only model to imitate and emulate back in chapter 1 of this epistle. We do have guides for how we direct our attention; we just need to heed them.
Paul was writing in a time when these letters he wrote to congregations had to be carried by hand, on foot or sometimes by boat, over distances of many miles. We live in a different time; A person can type in a few words and maybe add a picture of an approaching storm, an unfolding tragedy, or a grotesque indiscretion of a public figure, and then with a click of an “enter” key or an icon on their phone that report can travel worldwide in an instant to anyone who has that particular social media app, and before long even beyond that number. What we amplify with our attention matters.
There are voices out there coming from folks who want nothing less than to destroy those they hate. There are voices out there coming from folks who want only to rake in everything they can for themselves, with no regard for those from whom it is taken. There are voices out there who only want all the control, as long as you pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Our call is, among other things, not to feed those particular beasts.
Who do we listen to? That is an ongoing choice, and one which we need to make with prayerful discernment and care, seeking out the voices of those who speak from God’s integrity and Christ’s compassion and the Spirit’s power, lifting up the least of these and demanding justice and mercy and the fruits of the Spirit and the virtues to think on. It isn’t necessarily easy to find; those voices are often not amplified much, and they don’t necessarily flatter us. But it is another one of those ways of bearing witness, and yes, it is our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: #303, God the Spirit, Guide, and Guardian; #722, Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak